Green Design 2009: Island Adventure

A San Juan Island couple builds its dream green home on a budget
95 percent of the main house receives natural light.

Category: NW Home Articles


When Anna Howden bought a vacant view lot on San Juan Island nearly five years ago, her life was quite different than it is today: she was a single, Arkansas transplant working for a design firm based on Bainbridge Island. Then she was asked to run the firm’s satellite office in the San Juans. “It seemed like a great place to put down roots,” she says.

Indeed. Soon she made her first property purchase and launched her own design/build firm, D+A Studio. Her first order of business was to design her own residence. “I wanted to morph the traditional island cottage with more modern design,” she says.

More life changes were afoot as Anna embarked on her new house plan: In 2005, she married fellow island resident Geody Howden, a builder. The two shared a rental house on the island with Geody’s stepdaughter (now 9) as construction got underway. They have since added two more daughters (ages 3 and nearly 1) to their family. “Once I became a mom, my goals changed, and I adapted the original plans,” says Anna. “All of my daughters have asthma, so I wanted to create a healthy home without allergens or formaldehyde.”

The end result is a versatile dwelling that creatively combines clean design and green features, earning it a 3-Star Built Green certification and an AIA Seattle 2009 “What Makes It Green” Top 10 award. Eco elements range from the cutting-edge, such as a geothermal heat pump that uses the earth’s own natural energy, to the mainstream, such as Energy Star appliances and low-VOC finishes.

Green building typically is more costly than traditional custom building, but the project was completed on a relatively moderate budget. Smart cost-cutting measures included buying many materials locally to avoid costly shipping to the island and having Geody and two co-builders execute much of the construction. Although the geothermal heating system entailed an initial investment, the family’s heating costs dropped substantially as a result; they are paying only about 7 percent more on average to heat their home than they were in their rental house, even though the heated area is 45 percent larger. Longevity is also an important consideration in sustainable building, which Anna addressed by designing what she describes as an “active, living space”: a home that meets the family’s immediate needs and can be adapted as those needs change. The garage apartment in which Anna currently bases her office, for instance, could be used for visitors or rented out. Also, the wing in which the children’s bedrooms are located can be sealed off from the rest of the house, making co-housing with another family a possibility.

As the home’s owner, Anna is able to attest firsthand to its efficiency and durability and, most importantly, to the health of its occupants. “This project was about more than checking off boxes on a list,” she says. “It shows that green building can and does work in the real world.”

Designer: Anna Howden, D+A Studio, 1529 San Juan Dr., Friday Harbor, 360.370.5955; 1808 Bellevue Ave., Ste. 201, Seattle, 206.706.2565;
Builder: Geody Howden, Studio How, Friday Harbor; 360.370.5955
Size: Main house, 2,032 square feet; garage and apartment, 704 square feet 
Price: $186 per square foot
Completed: Spring 2009
Anna Howden's advice for building green on a budget: "Keep your eyes open for usable materials on places like Craigslist, and build and buy as much as possible locally to save on shipping."